This afternoon, the ninth seed Tennessee Volunteers will meet the eighth seed Michigan Wolverines in what the television networks are apparently insisting on referring to as the second round of the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament [full preview].
It's a low seed for a team that began the year on a 7-0 run and knocked off current top seed Pittsburgh, and despite its less-than-lofty ranking, Michigan fields a bizarro offense that's not easy to defend despite a marked size advantage. Compounding matters is the empirical fact that this year's Vols team has seemed particularly psych-able, and is contending with a double handful of distractions this week that would try the patience of even the most stoic of squads. In so many ways, this is a team very much at the end of the line, but they're not without reasons for fighting today:
For Bruce Pearl. A loss today could mean no more Bruce Pearl on the sidelines, given their head coach's recent unpleasant dalliances with the wrong side of the NCAA.There's every reason to believe the team will fall apart in his absence, for reasons roster-related (see below) and of general interest, as the vocal majority of Pearl fans in Knoxville return their attentions to a certain other basketball team at their university that wins and wins and wins.
For the team. And if Pearl's gone, it stands to reason junior Scotty Hopson and freshman Tobias Harris will cast their lots with the NBA, effectively gutting the team's talent core. (Those two, in particular, have excellent reasons to come out with hefty chips on their shoulders: Hopson's underachieved from whistle to whistle this season, and Harris was snubbed just last week with a second-team Freshman All-America selection.)
For Mike Hamilton. Whether in support of firing Pearl or not, reaction to Tennessee's athletic director revving up a bus, pitching the head basketball coach beneath it, and driving back and forth several times over his limp form (we're speaking metaphorically here, barely) has been overbrimming with loathing. (Yes, that's the NFL's leading rusher firing public shots at his alma mater's AD.)
Not known for his excellent timing with coaching decisions, is Hamilton: The last time he fired a coach, Phil Fulmer was made a lame duck the week before Homecoming, a game which the football Vols proceeded to shuffle through quarter-heartedly and lose to Wyoming, all in the name of hiring Lane Kiffin.
Alert viewers will recall that did not work out. If ever there were a time for a team to buck up and show Hamilton that perhaps college athletics' biggest stages are not the appropriate venue in which to cattily and clumsily maneuver to save his own job, now would be ideal.
For Pat Summitt. A common fixture in Thompson-Boling Arena for men's games, particularly Pearl's suspension, Pat Summitt is perhaps the last person on earth you want to come home to and find disappointed. (If Pearl is shown the door, and Hamilton follows suit, can she be considered for both positions? Don't tell me she couldn't run two teams and the athletic department by herself. It's Pat.)
For Peyton Manning. It's been just more than 13 years since the Heisman Trophy was cruelly wrested from its rightful owner and bestowed upon an unworthy Wolverine we shall not name here. Let's get one back on them, Vawls, shall we?